• Kate Ayers

Farming is more than meets the eye

Going against the grain, an expression used for someone who forges his or her path to achieve the desired result. This approach to getting things done is how Shelly Spruit chose the perfect name and philosophy for her business.

Shelley and her husband Tony Spruit own and operate Winchelsea Farms in Mountain, Ont. just east of Kemptville. The couple have farmed together for 33 years and Shelley’s farming roots extend at least four generations before her. So, it is no surprise that farming is the lifestyle she chose to pursue from a young age.

“I am very proud to say that I come from a long lineage of Canadian farmers,” Spruit says.

“Farming is in our blood. It is all we know.”

At one point or another all four of their children have been involved in agriculture. Their son and daughter-in-law farm together with her family on a nearby dairy farm. Their daughter Ashley went to school for and works in commercial bee keeping in Northern Alberta. Their daughter Amanda works in Africa and continues to use sustainable farming practices with local communities. Their daughter Kristen works in food service and event planning in Western Canada and blogs about food and travel.

Pursuing a passion

Over the years, Shelley and Tony grew their farm, with soil health and environmental sustainability as top priorities.

Shelly wanted to go beyond stellar land stewardship and help small independent businesses thrive and raise consumer awareness of how farmers produce their food.

A few years ago “I read a commentary about the environment, leadership, everything that contributes to the decisions we make. A person who is not satisfied with the status quo must be willing to go against the grain. That stuck with me,” Shelley says.

“I wasn’t satisfied with farmers taking all the risk and getting the smallest amount in return for their products. I’m not satisfied that the average consumer is unfamiliar with the concept that seeds are what are turned into flour, which are then used to make bread. I want to be a part of changing those realities.”

As a result, six years ago, Shelley incorporated Against the Grain Farms. Through this business entity, she aims to renew the production and use of locally grown heritage grains and works with manufacturers, bakers, distillers, and brewers to boost their bottom-line.

“I feel that the grains we trial and produce on the farm and the niche markets that we work with are like giving an artist a blank canvas and saying, ‘Go crazy,’” Shelley explains.

“We work with small, independent and privately-owned businesses. If they are able to make a sourdough bread out of purple corn or tortillas out of barley flour, they can differentiate themselves from so many of the restaurant and grocery store chains. Our unique products give businesses an edge and I like that I am able to help independent businesspeople stay viable, relevant and exciting.

“I don’t even consider farming a job,” she says.

While Shelley has strongly pioneered her own businesses and direct marketing strategies, she looks up to several role models in her life, including her husband Tony, her father Robert Mowet and brother Shane Mowet. Tony is working with a company to implement a new technology to sequester carbon in the family’s fields to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint. Over 30 years ago her father Robert introduced the concept of plastic storage to Canadian farmers as a more affordable alternative to upright silage, which was unheard of at the time. Shane was one of the first farmers in Eastern Ontario to install a bio-digester on his dairy farm. He also grows diverse crop rotations to maximize high-density and self-reliant feed production for his livestock. Clearly, this family has no shortage of innovation and passion for farming.

“All three of them are exceptionally passionate farmers who are always willing to colour outside of the lines and try new things,” Shelley says.

“They are willing to further the cause of agriculture well beyond just profit, but think about how they can better the industry for other farmers, the next generation, and continuously improve food production.”

However, Shelley’s journey has not been without hurdles along the way.

Shelley was selected as a 2018 Nuffield Scholar. Her topic of research was participatory plant breeding. This approach to farming supports growers as early-generation plant breeders who select varieties that are adapted to their regional climate and farm needs. With few people involved in this research in Canada, she had to search far and wide for mentors.

“But I guess that is one challenge of being a pioneer. No one has gone before you to forge a path, so you have to go out of your own comfort zone and search out mentorship,” she says.

Shelley tapped into resources in Europe and connected with people who conduct the same work she does in Ontario.

“The depth of research and collaboration between farmers, universities, the medical field and bakers in Europe gave me a breath of fresh air and proof that this approach to farming and marketing is possible,” she says.

“Sometimes you need to go further abroad, but mentors are out there.”

Exciting opportunities

COVID-19 has provided the world with challenges and opportunities. Through adversity, businesses and industries either shut down or pivot, adapt and thrive.

“I’m an eternal optimist and I’ve seen what’s happened with COVID-19. I think that as Canadian farmers, we are in a wonderful spot because we have an audience of concerned consumers. Like never before, we have a growing amount of young people who see the importance of and value in being a part of the food system,” Shelley says.

“We have the opportunity to share our messages in a whole different way. Online education and Zoom, for example, have opened up opportunities to allow people to see the farm without physically being there. Consumers want to hear the story from farmers.”

Fortunately, farmers have excellent stories to tell, their voices just need to be heard.

Throughout and beyond the pandemic, Shelley can apply the lessons she’s learned during her farming career so far, which include:

o Exercise ingenuity and adaptability

o Be aware of the trends

o Be willing to be a pioneer

o Be willing to step out and follow your gut instinct even if other people will think you are crazy

For those who want a fulfilling career full of variety, the agricultural industry might be a perfect fit.

“I would say that now more than ever, agriculture is open to so many different experiences. Whatever area you are interested in, including tech, engineering or science, ag has it,” Shelley says.

“Working on a farm is no longer just hard physical labour. There are so many opportunities and we need to encourage others to become involved in this space.”

What’s next?

In addition to Shelley’s day-to-day tasks of sales, responding to client and customer requests, and packing and shipping orders for their value-added products, she organizes and plans a number of research trials for her crops.

“We intentionally set up plot trials to try different crop production methods and measure soil microbes, bacteria and fungi. This year, we will introduce some cover crops, too, as part of a project with the Ontario Soil Network,” she says. These trials give Shelley a sense of her soil’s health and quality and help gage how her production practices affect soil organisms.

Shelley is involved in Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario’s (EFAO’s) farmer-led research projects. This year, EFAO selected Against the Grain Farms to participate in a research project to trial four varieties of heritage spelt. Two of these varieties are landrace species, which are a local variety of plants or animals that have distinctive characteristics arising from development and adaptation over time to conditions of a localized geographic region. Generally, these species are quite genetically diverse.

“In 2019, we planted 28 plot trials on our farm as well as grains for our business,” Shelley says.

Last year, due to COVID-19 and a shortage of on-farm help, she downsized the research plots, but is excited for plant 2021!

“The smaller plots are more labour intensive, but they are exciting. These plots are like Christmas because you never know what you’re going to get.”

Before the pandemic, Shelley shared her passion for ancient grains and on-farm learning with international students from South Africa, Mexico and Japan. She hosted students, interns and young graduates for several months. During their stay, students learned such skills as direct-to-consumer marketing, in-field marketing, data collection, trial plot upkeep, finding niche markets and developing value-added products.

“This year, I will spend my energy hosting, mentoring and educating Canadians who want to be more involved in food production,” Shelley says.

Overall, “what is on your plate is a statement of what matters to you,” Shelley says.

“The long term ramifications of putting a bit of extra effort into sourcing your food by getting to know your local farmers and understanding what Canadian farmers can grow and produce” are huge, she explains.

Consumers’ choices “affect businesses, the environment, communities, and so many other things that people just don’t stop to think about. Everyone needs to be involved in changing the way we grow, purchase and consume food.” RF

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